Washington – The nation’s governors who have gathered here for an annual conference, are pressing the federal government for money to help them combat the epidemic of opioid abuse and heroin addiction that has resulted in a spike of overdoses and strained state public health systems.
The governors also shared with the Obama administration and each other policies they’ve implemented to confront the crisis. Some of the governors on the front line of the opioid epidemic seem also to be in the vanguard to fight it.
At a White House roundtable on Monday, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts said his state has approved legislation that requires all graduates of the state’s medical and dental schools to take a course in pain medication management before they graduate.
Massachusetts also has set curriculums, especially for coaches at middle and high schools, that teach students and their parents about the benefits and risks of opioid medication.
Since he assumed office last year, Baker said he has also established 1,000 new beds in the state to combat addiction. He also said he’s pressed police officers who respond to overdose calls to persuade heroin and prescription pill addicts to seek immediate inpatient treatment. Massachusetts police officers and first responders, like those in Connecticut, are supplied with the opioid antidote naloxone, also known as Narcan.
“For law enforcement officers, the idea that you bring people back to life only to see that person in the same situation again the following week doesn’t make much sense,” Baker said.
Pending a final vote in the Massachusetts legislature is a bill that would limit “initial prescriptions” to help a patient manage the pain of an operation or injury to no more than seven days of pills.
Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut and the rest of New England, are areas that have been affected very heavily by the twin scourges of opioid abuse and heroin addiction.
But it’s a national problem that is only getting worse.
Baker said the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 80 percent of the world’s pain medications. Prescription pain medicine is considered by many a “gateway drug” to heroin, which is cheaper and in many cases, easier to obtain.
Baker also said the number of U.S. overdose deaths has been increasing by 25 percent each year over the past five or six years.
In Connecticut, more than 400 people died last year of drug overdoses.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life with this kind of negative momentum,” Baker said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he has “a statewide prescription” for Narcan so that family members of an addict can go to any participating pharmacy and obtain the life-saving inhaler for free and without a doctor’s order. Wolf says contributions from insurers pay for the program.
He said the lives of 600 Pennsylvanians have been saved by the program and that state law enforcement officers have a “hand-off-to-treatment” program for drug offenders.
Like Baker, Wolf said opioid addiction should be treated as a disease, not a crime.
“This is not a problem of casual drug use,” Wolf said.
The White House tapped the help of these governors to promote its own war on opioids, which includes a $1.1 billion request from Congress that would mostly go to states as grants for prevention and treatment.
“I think we have seen tremendous bipartisan support for it,” said White House drug czar Michael Botticelli.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs, expand the availability of Narcan to law enforcement agencies and first responders and provide new grants for treatment of addiction disorders.
But getting bipartisan approval for an additional $1.1 billion to fight opioid addiction in the 2017 federal budget is expected to be a tough sell to Republicans – as could approval of $600 million in emergency funds to combat prescription-pill and heroin addiction recently proposed in a bill by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is the Senate sponsor of a similar bill.
Botticelli said the Obama administration has not taken a position on the emergency funding bill.
“But clearly we are in alignment in terms of understanding the urgency for funding, particularly for funding at the state level, as well as looking at this as a comprehensive response,” he said.
The National Governors Association, however, embraced the emergency funding bill during the organization’s winter meeting in Washington this weekend.
Connecticut has also taken steps to deal with the opioid crisis.
The state has approved “Good Samaritan” laws that protect from prosecution for minor drug crimes people who seek medical attention for a friend who is overdosing.
The state has also adopted a “third-party prescriber” law that allows the prescription of Narcan to family and friends of a heroin user.
Last year, Connecticut strengthened its prescription monitoring program to make it mandatory for all prescribers of controlled substances and expanded the ability of pharmacists to directly prescribe Narcan.
There’s also a bill pending in the state legislature that would require municipalities to update their existing emergency medical service plans to ensure first responders are equipped and prepared to administer Narcan.
The pending legislation also prohibits health insurers from requiring prior authorization for coverage of Narcan.